Anime fans might well have heard of The Sky Crawlers before. Directed by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 2), the film is an adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's novel of the same name, and has been well received by critics and anime fans alike. Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is the love child of said anime and the Ace Combat series; a strange amalgamation of Japanese story-telling and Ace Combat-esque gameplay. It's certainly a niche, but there's a small portion of the Wii demographic that has been starved of just such a game for a long time. Innocent Aces is a game that fills the gaping hole in the console's otherwise fully stocked library of games. But does it do the genre justice?
Set in an alternate history where wars are arranged to alleviate the tension that comes with peace, the game follows a group of young pilots known as the Cougar Squadron. The story takes place before the events of the film, combining scenes from the anime with all new animations designed specifically for the game. Although newcomers to the world of The Sky Crawlers might not invest in the character driven melodrama, fans of the anime will relish the recurring characters, themes and underlying tone of the refreshingly unconventional anime.
If the fact that the title is developed by the Project Aces team hasn't already given the game away already, Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is a combat-centric flight-sim that takes advantage of the Wii's motion controls. Each of the seventeen levels takes the form of an aerial dogfight, where WWII themed fighter planes take to the skies to eliminate an enemy threat. It's a far cry from the modern aircraft and technology of the Ace Combat series. Don't expect any lock-ons or heat seeking missiles here; this game is all about your skill in the cockpit.
Unfortunately, a fatally flawed control scheme makes skill incredibly hard to come by. The game suggests that players should hold the Wii Remote in the left hand, and Nunchuck in the right - the complete opposite of what feels natural and comfortable. This is done with good reason, however, and attempts to replicate the controls of a real plane using the Wii's unique controls. Acceleration is handled well enough; a simple tilt of the Wii Remote (your throttle) giving the plane a burst of speed. The B-button is used for braking, although bringing the Wii Remote back to its original position is just as effective. Hoping to emulate the joystick of a real plane, the Nunchuck can be tilted to turn the plane left and right, with the Z button reserved for firing. This is where the controls break down. Instead of using the analogue stick that would have made everything nice and easy, Namco has instead used motion sensing to make the controls as realistic as possible.
I expect it becomes more bearable over time, but after a frustrating few hours I refused to put myself through the torture of it all any longer. After ditching the Wii Remote and Nunchuck in favour of the GameCube controller, the game became far more enjoyable. With the controls mastered, the game proves that the flying and shooting at its core are solid. Don't expect the same level of realism found in Ace Combat, however, as Innocent Aces is based on an anime after all. Reflecting this notion are Tactical Manoeuvre Commands (TMCs). When in the appropriate range of an enemy, the TMC gauge at the bottom of the screen will fill through three levels. By pressing the A button (in the default control scheme), your plane will automatically swoop behind the enemy, putting you in the perfect position to blow them out of the sky. The fuller the TMC gauge, the better position you'll be in to take out the enemy.
The TMC feature actually proves to be one of the game's most enjoyable elements, although I'm not sure hardened Ace Combat veterans would agree. Under the umbrella of anime, arcade influences such as this are very welcome, and give the game a far more relaxed tone than that of its big brother, Ace Combat. The game also allows players to assign manual manoeuvres to the analogue stick, with a list of eight to choose from. These include all manner of loops, turns and barrel rolls, which can all be executed at the tap of a button once assigned. With TMCs and manoeuvres mastered, the game allows for an impressive display of aerial dexterity, letting players act out the life of a pilot with style and flair.
Aerial combat games are based entirely in the air, and as such can't dazzle with their level design, but even so Innocent Aces looks mundane. From the sky, the environments on the ground look uninspired, and could really use some landmarks or architecture to bring the game world to life. The planes are impressive enough, but this is only really proved from the close up shots seen in the hangar. The anime license could have allowed for a far more interesting aesthetic; I'd have thought cel-shading would have gone down particularly well, but whilst this might have appealed to the anime fans, flight-sim fanatics might not have been so keen. Innocent Aces isn't a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination, it just lacks charm.
The action in the sky is given weight through a well developed narrative back on the ground, with the distinct personalities of the pilots shining through well. Whilst this might be exactly what fans of the anime signed up for, others might find that the narrative is laid on a bit too thick. Cutscenes are plentiful and slow moving; a combination that requires a lot of patience. Whilst I appreciated the subtleties of the characters and the direction the plot was headed, I was never actually interested in what was happening. To rephrase that without the padding: I was bored. During gameplay itself, your squad talk amongst themselves Starwing style, shouting and screaming to give the impression that what's going on is exciting. In actuality, the action on screen is relatively tame, and the excitement feels contrived as a result.
To return to the hackneyed point I've been making throughout the review, if you don't like flying, anime, or a blend of the two, Innocent Aces won't appeal to you in the slightest. For those it does appeal to, however, the blend is a good one: rich and designed with the tastes of its audience in mind. Despite a fundamentally flawed default control scheme and somewhat bland visuals, Innocent Aces remains a solid flight-sim. A certain type of person will undoubtedly love the game, but for everybody else, the game will simply fly over their heads.